Modern-day Soweto

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Soweto is forever linked to South Africa’s apartheid struggle and was home to Nelson Mandela, Desmund Tutu and many other South African luminaries. While staying in Johannesburg my research group had the opportunity to travel to the Gauteng area to see the township-turned sprawling suburb of Soweto.

On the way, we passed the Orlando Power Station towers, which are covered in vibrant, massive murals, and worth checking out.

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First, we stopped at the Freedom Charter Memorial in Kliptown and looked at the Walter Sisulu Square monuments that feature the principles of the charter. The monuments are located in a market square where people sell clothing, food and other items.

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Today, Soweto is considered a middle-class suburb but the disparity between wealth and poverty is still visible. There are affluent sections, middle-income, and on the outskirts an informal settlement remains.

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While in Soweto we visited museums and Vilakazi Street where there are shops, restaurants, the Nelson Mandela House Museum, and further down the street — Desmond Tutu’s house, which has a plaque but it is not open to the public.

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Nelson Mandela’s house was an interesting visit. It is full of memorabilia and depicts the way his house was before his incarceration on Robben Island.

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We also visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. Pieterson was a child shot and killed by police during the student uprisings, which played a significant role in changing South Africa’s trajectory. It is a short tour that begins outside at the memorial and then moves inside of the museum. The tour clearly explains how and why the uprising occurred. The events are described through a timeline culminating in the decision and subsequent reaction to the children being forced to learn in the Dutch language Afrikaans. After the tour, we walked over to the side street where everyone parks and perused the row of stalls full of arts and crafts made by local residents. I purchased beaded jewelry, a few carved animals and other art. Definitely worth a look if you are interested in African art.

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The Apartheid Museum was a very interesting experience and I wish there had been more time. I definitely would return again. When you purchase your tickets it says white or non-white and there are two lines to enter the building. I received non-white.
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It was fairly disturbing to watch people separate into two lines and view different images as we made our way into the building. It drove home how people who were not white were treated during apartheid and was reminiscent of segregation in the U.S. It was a very introductory example of what it was like to not be white but walking through that separate line sickened me. It was an important reminder that these horrible periods of history are not so far behind us and should not be forgotten. Once inside, the history of the struggle is clearly depicted through photos, video and other symbols – it should not be missed.

We left Soweto and headed back to Johannesburg. We managed to arrive just in time before everything was packed up… at the African Craft Market at Rosebank Mall. It is located in the covered parking lot of the mall and is full of local artisans selling clothing, jewelry, beaded items, carved animals, painted bowls, prints and other items. Like most markets they had a few stalls with food. I found Indian food and grabbed a veggie samosa, pakora and a few other bites that were really yummy. I picked up a great bowl and a pair of earrings. Bargaining is expected and though I love a good deal, I try to be fair when haggling with artists making a living of these creations.

After spending a day on an emotional journey through apartheid, I needed a break to process what I had seen and some of the feelings the experiences provoked in me. The market was a good way to decompress for an hour. I can’t imagine the toll it takes on a person who lives through struggles such as apartheid or segregation, and the courage and selflessness necessary to result in positively changing the lives of millions.

 

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